The Sestak Factor in the
Pennsylvania Senate Race

April 7, 2015 — The Pennsylvania US Senate campaign, a race that could well decide which party controls the majority in the next Congress, is beginning in bizarre fashion. While many people think that first-term Sen. Pat Toomey (R) is highly vulnerable under a presidential year turnout model, the Democratic situation is suspect, at best.

Former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA-7), who served two terms from Delaware County in the Philadelphia suburbs after unseating veteran Rep. Curt Weldon (R) in 2006, has been running his 2016 Senate campaign virtually since the time he suffered a 51-49 percent statewide loss to Toomey in 2010. Sestak officially announced his new effort well before the 2014 election.

Normally, having a nominee who lost by just two points return to challenge the opposite party’s incumbent in the next campaign is a positive occurrence, but relations between Sestak and the national and state Democratic Party leadership are so poor that such is not the case.

In a Washington Post story about the impending campaign, Sestak addressed his internal party trouble. “So how could I not go down and shake the hands of the DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) and say, ‘can we work together?’ But, if not, I understand if they have a better choice.”

Party leaders have been actively attempting to recruit an alternative to Sestak, but so far no one else has yet announced for the seat. Interest is coming from Philadelphia state Sen. Vincent Hughes and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, however. The party leaders’ apparent first choice, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, likely won’t become a candidate. He just accepted a position in new Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) administration.

Sestak’s latest campaign stunt is raising eyebrows even further. From time to time, candidates around the country have actually walked their states from one end to the other as a way to draw attention to their political efforts. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R), in his successful gubernatorial campaigns, walked the state of Tennessee. Lawton Chiles (D), who earned the nickname “Walkin’ Lawton”, similarly traversed the state of Florida on his way to winning his US Senate seat.

Both of these men walked with great fanfare, having advance teams making it well known that they were coming to the various communities along the way long before they arrived. Alexander wore a special lumberjack shirt that became his eventual trademark, and both candidates recruited party regulars and supporters along the way to walk with them.

Sestak just completed a rather impressive trek through the state of Pennsylvania, but did so virtually alone, and with what seems very little campaign purpose. He often walked at night, near Interstate frontage roads, and by himself. Some days during the past month, he would walk 19 to 20 miles a day. He spoke to people generally only to ask directions, as reported, and would usually attend a single small campaign event during the day. He would only occasionally conduct news interviews. Therefore, it’s hard to see how he generated excitement or positive after effects for his campaign.

It is likely strategic decisions of this sort increases Democratic desires for a new candidate.

The Pennsylvania race is as close to a Democratic must win as is any campaign in their quest to regain their lost Senate majority. Because of its strength for the Democratic presidential ticket over what will be 28 years when the next election is held, the Keystone race naturally moves near the very top of the party’s target list. But, the GOP has done well in other Pennsylvania races: taking one of two US Senate seats, 12 of 18 congressional contests, three of the last six gubernatorial campaigns, and both chambers of the state legislature. Therefore, for a Republican Party that must expand the presidential playing field next year, there is no question PA will become a major battleground state.

It will be interesting to watch Dem leaders’ coming moves, and if the desire to recruit another candidate intensifies. The way this senatorial campaign is beginning suggests that we will hear more from the party chieftains and activists who want to proceed in a different direction.

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